WRITTEN REVIEW – St. Vincent (2014)
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Written by: Theodire Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd & Jaeden Lieberher
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Release Date: December 5th 2014
It’s that time of year when movies start coming out that ask thought-provoking questions. How far are people willing to go to capture the news in ‘Nightcrawler’? What is the REAL worth of masculinity in ‘Foxcatcher‘? Will Michael Keaton do ‘Birdman IV‘!? In the case of ‘St. Vincent‘ the question it poses is “What really defines a saint?”. Traditionally, a Saint is someone who devotes their lives to helping others, usually in the name of religion. When it comes to the types of roles that Bill Murray can play in his sleep, the word “Saint” usually doesn’t fit into the role description. Yet ‘St. Vincent‘ sets out to prove that even the most sarcastic, damaged and irredeemable person can have saintly qualities. It’s just a shame that ‘St. Vincent‘ feels so restrained, otherwise it could have provided a compelling answer to the question it imposes on its viewers.
After failing to garner awards recognition for ‘Hyde Park on the Hudson‘ in 2012, Bill Murray is hoping that his portrayal of Vincent MacKenna will net him the jackpot. Vincent is a foul-mouthed, cynical, lazy retired war veteran who is just generally unpleasant to be around. He frequently drinks, smokes and yells at anyone who tries to talk to him. However, things change when he’s unwillingly tasked with babysitting 12 year-old Oliver (Lieberher) who has just moved in next door with his single mother, Maggie (McCarthy). The two end up bonding as Oliver tries to find saintly qualities in the old guy for an upcoming presentation at school.
It’s a formulaic set-up, but done well in the hands of a capable cast. Bill Murray is perfect for this sort of role and while it felt like he was sleepwalking through ‘Hyde Park on the Hudson‘, the physical and vocal transformation he has to make during a 3rd act development is a challenge that Murray is incredibly game for. It’s easily his best performance since ‘Lost in Translation‘ and he’s a natural fit for the role. While it’s tough to see him making much of a splash at awards season come early 2015 due to competition from those such as Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch and others, I hope he gets SOME recognition because he’s definitely putting his heart into the role of Vincent.
The immediate supporting cast are also very good as well, particularly acting newcomer Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver. Despite his age he gets across a lot of emotional range and it’s very entertaining to see a first-time feature film actor working so well with such a veteran of the screen such as Murray. The two characters have some great interplay and there’s a genuine mother/son bond with him and Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy is known for her comedic roles in films such as ‘Bridesmaids‘, ‘Tammy‘ and ‘The Heat‘ but here she’s understated and very genuine. There’s no sign of the comedic persona that she’s chiefly built her career around and after the overblown dud that was ‘Tammy‘ earlier this year, that’s very refreshing.
Where the movie falls short are some of the other characters, though not due to their performances. Terrence Howard has the role of a loan-shark who is after money from Vincent. However, he’s in two scenes and completely disappears from the movie leaving his plot-point completely unfinished. Literally, his sub-plot just stops and there’s no pay-off. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you cut Howard out of the movie, it wouldn’t feel out of place. And that’s a shame because Terrence Howard is a good actor, he’s just wasted here with nothing to work with. Chris O’Dowd is good as Oliver’s catholic teacher, but he clashes with many of the other cast members in both tone and delivery and it seems like he walked off the set of an entirely different movie and the same goes for Naomi Watts as Vincent’s “lady of the night”. These are superfluous supporting cast members and wastes of great talent.
These wouldn’t be that much of a problem on their own, but it culminates into a larger issue with ‘St. Vincent‘ and that’s the lack of drive or cause-and-effect. The plot meanders around and just happens as opposed to there being much of a through-line or a push to get things done. This is normally the case of films that are meant to represent an “average-day-in-the-life” type story, but with ‘St. Vincent‘ it feels like many sub-plots are abandoned. The aforementioned Terrence Howard character is one example, but another one (without getting into spoilers) involves Vincent committing a morally reprehensible act that should completely shift the dynamics of the movie and his relationship with Oliver…but it’s NEVER brought up again. Another example has Oliver bond over the course of the movie with another student at his school played by Dario Barosso. It’s a good performance by Barosso, but it’s nullified by the fact that the growth takes place entirely off-screen meaning it lacks any sort of pathos when it’s supposed to pay-off at the end.
It makes me genuinely question whether or not there’s a complete cut of ‘St. Vincent‘ out there and the one that’s been released in movie theatres is actually an unfinished draft rushed out in time for Oscar-season.
These issues culminate in a movie that’s engaging while watching it and I’ll admit that I was emotionally engaged at the finale, wiping away a few tears, but after the humorous credits-sequence had finished I walked away feeling very unfulfilled. With a storyline that doesn’t have much drive to it, coupled with many arcs and characters that feel utterly abandoned and incomplete, it makes ‘St. Vincent‘ a frustrating movie to look back on in retrospect. Even Vincent’s traumatic backstory feels half-baked. We’re supposed to believe that Vincent is the way he is because of traumatic events in his past, but there’s no specifics there for the audience to hone-in on. Like I said, there’s no “cause-and-effect” storytelling in ‘St. Vincent‘ and this is made especially apparent when it’s revealed what has become of Vincent’s wife and the character changes into a polar opposite personality. These two sides of Vincent are so far removed from each other that the movie needs to provide justification for these changes, but it fails to do so. Thankfully, Bill Murray is a capable enough actor to play these two sides but the movie doesn’t provide him with enough reason for those two sides to co-exist in the first place.
Once the movie is over, I should have been asking myself about what the true qualities of a saint are. Instead I found myself ruminating on the fact that ‘St. Vincent‘ never really pushed itself. It could have been funnier. It could have been more dramatic. It could have challenged the characters more in order to really engage the audience in their struggles and conflict. The end result is something that feels rather insincere and more like an exercise in manipulation. Like I said, I was wiping away tears at the end, but minutes later I left my screening thinking about little else other than “Wait, what happened to Terrence Howard?” and “Did Oliver ever find out about [SPOILER]?”.
‘St. Vincent‘ is kept afloat by strong performances by the three central leads and some entertaining cast dynamics. It’s also efficiently filmed with a rocking 80s/90s soundtrack as well as some great location-work. The movie was filmed predominantly in Brooklyn and ‘St. Vincent‘ manages to give the place a lot of personality on screen, whether it’s from the varied locales to the colourful citizens that populate its streets. There’s an attention to detail in the setting that is admirable in ‘St. Vincent‘, but it makes the lack of detail in its characters all the more noticeable. For something that’s attempting to be so profound in the way that we look at everyday people, ‘St. Vincent‘ is surprisingly lightweight. To take a metaphor straight from the movie, it seems to think it’s Sushi, but really it’s just sardines.
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Posted: 11th Dec 14